Democracy and the Abuses of Our Ruling Elites

COMMENTARY Progressivism

Democracy and the Abuses of Our Ruling Elites

Jun 27, 2024 12 min read
Steven G. Bradbury

Distinguished Fellow

Steven G. Bradbury is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
The presi­dent’s duty is to ensure that the execu­tive branch faith­fully honors and carries out the require­ments of the laws enacted by Con­gress. Philip Yabut / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

We prefer policy choices that respect the role of elected legislators and the popular will of voters, and we dis­favor actions that empower un­elec­ted elites.

When today’s unelected elites wield coer­cive power they often dic­tate require­ments that no popu­larly elected legis­la­ture would ever endorse.

Ameri­can voters are waking up to the corro­sive dangers these poli­cies present.

During this election season, the message incessantly trum­peted from the left is that demo­cracy is some­how under threat from con­ser­va­tives—par­tic­u­larly from the reener­gized popu­list current in today’s con­ser­va­tive move­ment. In fact, as the so-called “pro­gres­sive” policy actions of the Biden admin­is­tra­tion and its colla­bor­a­tors in deep-blue states amply demon­strate, just the oppo­site is true.

Indeed, the distinc­tion between policies that pro­mote demo­cracy and repre­sen­ta­tive government and those that are anti-demo­cratic is critical to under­stand­ing much of the new con­ser­va­tive momen­tum build­ing in America and Europe. A grow­ing num­ber of us in the con­ser­va­tive move­ment are focused primarily on pre­serving the strength of our con­sti­tu­tional republic and the vitality of our demo­cratic insti­tu­tions for their own sake, because these are the struc­tures that best secure the bene­fits of free­dom and liberty for all.

On balance, we prefer policy choices that respect the role of elected legislators and the popular will of voters, and we dis­favor actions that tend to empower un­elec­ted elites: appointed judges and admin­istra­tors; bureau­crats in regu­latory agen­cies; pro­fessors and aca­demic admin­istrators; corporate execu­tives and big-tech billion­aires; venture capi­talists and Wall Street finan­ciers; law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence opera­tives who act outside the light of pub­lic scrutiny; media and aca­demic elites that join forces with govern­ment agen­cies; and other self-anointed policy setters who are not directly accountable to the people whose lives their deci­sions impact.

A classic example of an anti-democratic power grab was the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. It took the politically fraught issue of abor­tion access from the voters and their elected repre­sen­ta­tives and handed it to nine unelected and unaccountable judges—actually only five, because that’s the number required to con­trol a decision in the high court.

Justice Alito’s opinion in Dobbs, in contrast, was pro-democracy because it returned this policy issue to the democratic process in the states without imposing any value judgment from the court about what the outcome of that process should be. Under Dobbs, state legis­la­tures are free to decide the question in accordance with the popu­lar will of the resi­dents of their states.

Elected legis­latures and voters are not perfect, but they do reflect the needs and exper­iences of the gen­eral population. For that reason, they tend to protect the eco­nomic interests and freedoms of the average citizen, and they lean toward pro­moting ordered liberty for our com­mu­nities, prosperity for the greatest num­ber of people, and a higher quality of life throughout society.

>>> The Tyranny of the Administrative State

Unelected elites are much more will­ing to impose costly, dis­rup­tive, and trans­for­mational changes on America’s families and com­mu­nities in pur­suit of aspira­tional policy goals that haven’t been (and in some cases never would be) approved by elected legislators or voters.

Because they don’t have to answer to the voters, agency regu­lators are much more likely to overlook the real-world impacts and costs of their decisions on the aver­age person, to mani­pu­late science and distort eco­nomic reality, and to inflate the sup­posed benefits of their preferred out­comes—benefits that are often extremely specu­lative, fanciful, and un­tested.

Concern about the “luxury beliefs” of progressive elites was recently high­lighted by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In “The Sins of the Educated Class,” he observes:

Progressivism has practically become an entry ticket into the elite. A few years ago, a Yale admissions officer wrote: ‘For those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice.’ Recently Tufts [Uni­ver­sity] included an optional essay prompt that explicitly asked appli­cants what they were doing to advance social justice.

Over the years the share of pro­gres­sive students and professors has steadily risen, and the share of con­ser­va­tives has approached zero. Pro­gres­sives have created places where they never have to encounter beliefs other than their own. At Harvard, 82 per­cent of pro­gres­sives say that all or almost all of their close friends share their political beliefs.

That helps explain the breath­taking ignorance we hear from pro-Hamas protest encamp­ments on Ivy League campuses. Brooks goes on to point out:

In the early 2010s, highly educated white liberals increasingly experi­enced a dis­pro­por­tionate rise in depression, anxiety and nega­tive emo­tions. This was accom­panied by a sharp shift to the left in their politi­cal views. The spread of can­cel culture and support for decrimi­nalizing illegal immi­gra­tion and ‘defund­ing the police’ were among the quin­tessen­tial luxury beliefs that seemed out of touch to people in less privi­leged parts of society. Those people often responded by making a sharp counter­shift in the popu­list direc­tion, con­tri­buting to the elec­tion of Donald Trump and to his con­tinued politi­cal viability today.

We can take this diagnosis one step further and explore through the same lens how elite pro­gres­sives coopt our insti­tutions to pursue unreal­istic goals in ways that will have devastating effects on the lives and eco­nomic security of Americans. The “pro­gres­sive pro­secutor” move­ment against enforcing many criminal laws in numer­ous juris­dic­tions is just one example of “luxury” policies that jeopardize the lives of every­day citizens.

Highly educated progressive elites con­trol and domi­nate many of America’s lead­ing institu­tions, including not just academia but also the most pow­er­ful organs of govern­ment, business, and media. That’s not sur­prising—edu­cated elites have frequently domi­nated these insti­tu­tions. But now, in these posi­tions of power (usually attained by special selection and appoint­ment, not by popular elec­tion), pro­gres­sives are imposing beliefs and view­points con­trary to the natural reali­ties under­stood by the average citizen.

The threat these elites pose has become that much more acute under chief execu­tives like President Biden in Washington, Governor Gavin Newsom in Cali­fornia, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada.

We’ve seen the concept of “equity” (equality of outcome) substituted for equal­ity of oppor­tunity, and traditional notions of merit and excel­lence labeled “systemic racism.” “Diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) com­mit­ments have become an imper­ative (and a big busi­ness), and billions of dollars in fed­eral grants are now steered to com­munities and projects on the basis of racial con­sid­er­ations cloaked as “environ­men­tal justice.”

All these race-conscious policies tread upon the fun­da­mental prin­ciples of non-dis­cri­mi­na­tion that are core to the American identity and revered by most citizens—prin­ciples first pro­claimed in the Declara­tion of Indepen­dence, reaffirmed in the Gettys­burg Address, settled at the cost of pro­found blood­shed and national tur­moil in the Civil War Amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion, and finally faith­fully enforced after more than a century of stub­born resis­tance and struggle in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Progressive policies are not just cor­rosive of con­sti­tu­tional values; they also erode respect for per­sonal respon­sibility. Thus, despite repeated losses in the courts, Presi­dent Biden seems hell­bent on forcing Ameri­can tax­payers of all income levels and edu­ca­tional backgrounds to pay billions of dollars to “forgive” the volun­tarily assumed stu­dent loan debt of college-educated elites.

And progressives go so far as to reject nature and the scientific method. Bio­logical dis­tinc­tions between the sexes are ignored in favor of the radi­cal con­ceit that each indi­vidual must be allowed to decide his own gen­der identity as a matter of per­sonal psy­cho­logy. And every­one else must respect that personal choice, even if it means distort­ing science and language and throw­ing over­board due pro­cess, fairness, and the hard-won achieve­ments of women’s-rights policies like Title IX. Our elite minders force people to deny the facts of nature under penalty of losing their rights and their live­li­hood.

Even the most sacro­sanct of our public taboos are broken as unelected leaders abuse their posi­tions of power to target poli­tical opponents through lawfare, suppress the exercise of civil liber­ties, and shield the governing estab­lishment from anyone or any idea per­ceived as a threat.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and ele­ments of the intel­li­gence com­munity pres­sure the big-tech platforms to censor and suppress the online speech of Ameri­cans who dissent from the establishment’s preferred posi­tions, including on impor­tant issues like vaccine mandates, the origins of COVID, elec­tion inte­grity, and Ukraine funding. And the FBI and Justice Depart­ment harass as poten­tial “domes­tic terrorists” ordinary parents who object to actions taken by their local school boards, as well as religiously minded Americans who exercise their right to pro­test at abortion clinics.

We also have a secretary of homeland security who deliber­ately refuses to enforce the immi­gra­tion laws he was sworn to uphold, putting every Ameri­can com­mu­nity in danger, as well as dozens of pro­gres­sive prose­cutors around the country who refuse to pro­se­cute the crimi­nals preying on law-abiding citizens in our cities.

To see just how quickly these extreme and ideo­logically driven policies of pro­gres­sive elites can push an advanced Wes­tern demo­cracy into the tank, we have only to look to our great ally to the north, Canada—a truly sober­ing and quite depres­sing case study of national decline.

Moreover, when today’s unelected elites wield coer­cive power—as they do in many regu­la­tory agencies like the Environ­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) and in pri­vate asso­cia­tions and accredi­ta­tion organi­za­tions that set stan­dards for edu­cation, health care, the legal pro­fession, building trades, and other walks of life—they often dic­tate require­ments so con­found­ing of basic eco­nomics that no popu­larly elected legis­la­ture would ever endorse them.

Examples include the massively expen­sive man­dates recently issued by EPA and other agencies to force revo­lu­tionary change in power gen­era­tion, cars and trucks and other trans­por­ta­tion sys­tems, the electricity grid, home appli­ances, build­ing con­struc­tion and HVAC systems, and other critical sectors—all using statutes enacted decades ago for very different pur­poses.

The relentless push to phase out fossil fuels and the sup­pres­sion of domestic energy pro­duction and dis­tri­bu­tion will bur­den the lives of millions and close the door to eco­nomic improve­ment for lower-income and rural popu­la­tions.

America leads the world in oil and gas reserves, and these fossil fuels are the most efficient and cost-effec­tive sources of energy. Over the past two cen­turies, the use of fossil fuels has resulted in the greatest improve­ment in human health and wel­fare the world has ever seen. It has enabled the most rapid increase in the quality of the aver­age per­son’s life in the history of civiliza­tion, including through the pre­ven­tion of disease and the reduc­tion in deaths from extreme weather events.

The “green” alternatives to fossil fuels currently being subsidized with tax dol­lars and thrust upon us with­out our con­sent are nowhere near as beneficial, reli­able, effi­cient, and cost-effective. And the new infra­struc­ture build­out required to transi­tion to greater reliance on “renewable” energy sources is way more costly than the regu­lators let on and can­not realistically be achieved on the time­line they envision.

Already these “invest­ments” in renewable energy are starting to cause basic elec­tricity rates around the country to spike dramatically (for the first time in most Ameri­cans’ lives), which will lead to ripple-on increases in the cost of living through­out our society and make the average American markedly poorer.

The unelected govern­ment regulators forcing this radical trans­for­ma­tion on us—those at the EPA, the current leaders in the Depart­ment of Energy and other fed­eral depart­ments and agencies, and Gov. New­som’s cli­mate regu­lators at the Cali­fornia Air Resources Board (CARB)—con­struct detailed supporting analy­ses to jus­tify their actions, but they typically ignore or mani­pulate the astro­nomical costs and fan­tas­tical eco­nomics of the “energy transition” they’re pushing.

If climate change is truly a looming challenge that necessitates a transition from fossil fuels, it’s for our elected representatives in Congress to weigh the com­peting interests involved and to decide how we as a nation should respond and adapt to that challenge and how the costs of the response should be distributed. Congress has never voted to give EPA or any other regu­latory agency the power to make such con­se­quen­tial deci­sions that jeo­par­dize the entire U.S. eco­nomy and way of life.

Just because these pro­gressive regulators may have been appointed by a president who was elected by America’s voters doesn’t vali­date their radi­cal policies as con­sistent with the demo­cratic process. Under our con­sti­tu­tional repub­lic, the presi­dent and his minions aren’t the lawmakers; the presi­dent’s duty is to ensure that the execu­tive branch faith­fully honors and carries out the require­ments of the laws enacted by Con­gress. The over­active regu­lators of the Biden admin­istra­tion are stretch­ing their legal auth­orities well beyond the limits Congress auth­orized.

Anyone with the temerity to take issue with today’s pro­gres­sive climate change and “social justice” diktats is labeled a “flat earther” whose opinions are considered beyond the pale and sup­pressed as dan­gerous “mis­infor­ma­tion” or “dis­infor­ma­tion.” All the cen­sorship tactics of these self-appointed thought police are un-Ameri­can.

>>> Is the Administrative State Causing American Decline?

Toted up, these mani­pu­la­tions of reality and distor­tions of costs and burdens pedaled by our ruling elites are pro­foundly reckless and deeply anti-demo­cratic. We’re not just talking about a rhetorical battle of words and ideas. The trans­la­tion of elite pro­gressi­vism into actual public policy with­out demo­cratic ratifi­ca­tion is more than a per­formative gesture con­fined to the ivory towers of aca­deme or the aeries of Davos. It has the real power to erode the foun­da­tions of our liberty, our demo­cratic republic, and our eco­nomic strength.

For some of the more extreme elite pro­gres­sives, that appears to be the ulti­mate objective.

But, as presaged by the drubbing the Greens took in the latest Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions, there’s reason to believe voters are start­ing to see that these anti-demo­cratic actions are con­trary to their interests and verge on pro­gres­sive total­i­tar­ian­ism. If put to a direct vote, progressive policies would very likely be rejected—and deci­sively—by the demo­cratic will of the elec­torate.

Even voters in my own very liberal home­town of Portland, Oregon, recently tossed from office the pro­gres­sive district attorney Mike Schmidt in favor of a cen­trist com­mon-sense pro­secutor who simply vowed to enforce the law—just as radical San Fran­cisco DA Chesa Boudin was turned out by liberal voters in a special recall elec­tion in 2022.

So it does seem that Americans are getting wise to what’s happening. They’re not likely to tolerate much longer the dis­a­vowal of biology, the suppression of free speech and reli­gious liberties, the destruc­tion of America’s prosperity, and the deni­gra­tion of truths enshrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion—just as they reject schemes to “defund the police” and let crimes go unpun­ished.

All signs suggest that the over­reach of unelected elites will pre­cipi­tate a his­toric poli­tical back­lash as their arro­gant policies run against the rocks of eco­nomic, social, and cul­tural realities. Ameri­can voters are waking up to the corro­sive dangers these poli­cies present. We shouldn’t be surprised if a seis­mic shift in politi­cal align­ments follows this awaken­ing.